The Ministry of Artistic Affairs
Monday, July 4, 2011

Ironically, Joe Fig's interest in painting led to his being, if anything, better known for his sculptures. In conjunction with interviewing various painters for his 2009 book Inside the Painter's Studio, he made well-received dioramalike models of their studios, which were exhibited along with audio of the interviews. Fig, who holds a BFA and an MFA from New York's School of Visual Arts, returned to painting in this recent show of eight canvases from 2010 and '11. Inspired by Ross King's 2006 book The Judgment of Paris: Manet, Meissonier and an Artistic Revolution, Fig painted historical or imagined scenes from those two artists' lives, maintaining a focus on their studios. His interviews with contemporary artists stressed the sustainability of an artistic profession, so he was drawn to King's study of painters with opposite career arcs: Meissonier, now obscure though flourishing in the 1860s, and the then-upstart Manet.

The paintings are narrative and anecdotal, but not merely so. Fig's identification with the artists comes across in works at once amusing and respectful. In Study for the Campaign of France, Fig depicts the self-serious Meissonier modeling himself as the Emperor Napoleon, alfresco on a winter day, astride a wooden horse, painting himself from a mirror. The tenderness implicit in the work was underscored when Fig told me that to make the painting he bought the costume and assembled the same scenario in his own yard.

Another scene presents Meissonier in the studio, his broad back to us, facing a mirror, holding a palette and brush before an easel. He wears nothing but a jock strap (suspensoir in French). According to King, the perfectionist artist was once discovered thus, sketching himself as the Emperor, whose physique he shared. Fig titled the painting for Meissonier's reported reply when asked if he was treating some medical condition: Don't You See? Napoleon Wore a Suspensoir!

The Judgment of Paris (1863 Jury) represents the selection process for the Salon exhibition from which Le déjeuner sur l'herbe and thousands of other paintings were refused. Several Manet paintings, including the Déjeuner, lean against deep pink walls at the rear, regarded by jurors in top hats; at right hangs Whistler's Girl in White, which was also turned down. At left, in the foreground, an art handler holds a painting on whose back is stamped a red "R" for "rejected."

Monsieur Manet, rich with period studio props like statuary and Japanese fans, depicts Manet and his favorite model, Victorine Meurent. An improbably zaftig nude Meurent looks out at the viewer from the background, shielding herself from view as if surprised. In the foreground the artist, maulstick in hand, gazes seriously into the distance, as if contemplating his legacy.

Joe Fig: New Paintings ran at Cristin Tierney Gallery from March 3-April 16, 2011.

By Brian Boucher in Art In America.